Active Learning Demystified
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Defining Active Learning
Active learning refers to any course-related activity (in-class or out-of-class) that engages students to take a participatory role in their learning and aims to support the path to understanding, integrating, evaluating, and applying new ideas and information. With this intent, active learning may take the form of, for example, practice, discussion, problem-solving, or meaning-creation. Students have an opportunity to become active learners when:
- you and your materials introduce the content as it relates to examples of real-world situations and applications – where your content “is” in everyday personal, social or professional phenomena – that are familiar to your students and with which they can identify;
- you and your materials ask your students to explain their various, existing understandings of your content, thereby making explicit misunderstandings or misconceptions, which you and their peers can challenge and address;
- you and your materials transpose your content into the form of problems to solve or challenges to resolve, which require students to draw on what they already know, to seek out what they still need to know, and to integrate the “old” and the “new”;
- your students are presented with multiple perspectives on your content and asked to think critically about it by gathering, weighing and debating evidence;
- you and your materials use “modeling,” presenting models of both correct and incorrect examples drawn from your content; because students can not learn from a “perfect” example of how to do something or think about something – a perfect model does not prompt thinking about critical decision points, alternative consequences, or errors to avoid – challenge students first to interrogate incorrect examples and, subsequently, correct ones;
- you and your materials challenge students to apply content they have learned to new situations, problems or issues that matter to them and have real-world consequences;
- you and your materials offer students multiple modes of representing your content – verbal description, illustrations that express structures, motion pictures which document processes and movement, diagrams which reveal systems, concept maps that lay bare parts of a phenomena and their relationships to each other, sound in some cases, and so; each of these modes captures distinct features and characteristics of your content, thereby portraying it in robust form, and communicating with students with varying information processing strengths;
- your students are free to engage in trial and error, even failure, prompting them to retrace their steps or reasoning, to identify and attend to critical decision points and their consequences, and eventually to succeed to their own and your satisfaction; as appropriate within individual content areas, students should be engaged in activities such that they discover there is or is not “one correct answer or perspective.”
- Active learning put students in the driver’s seat, building on their prior knowledge and experience by grappling with and integrating “the new,” which motivates them to engage more fully with your content. With your guidance through these activities, students will develop the skills and strategies to continue toward more mature understandings of your content. When students “manipulate” knowledge in these ways, they are constructing knowledge and understanding for themselves, and taking personal responsibility for their own learning – rather than depending on others to “feed” them information - to memorize in superficial ways.
~by Dr. Francine Shuchat Shaw
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Benefits of Using Active Learning Strategies
- can help keep students more engaged than simply watching or listening
- allows students to reach a deeper understanding of the content
- develops cooperation among students
- enables students to receive timely feedback, which can resolve any misconceptions
- increases problem solving skills
- provides an opportunity to discuss more difficult topics in a peer setting
Considerations for Integrating Active Learning
The following are some generalized considerations regarding active learning:
- Beginning with small activities can take up little in-class time and can identify misconceptions, which will aid future aspects of the course.
- Large lectures frequently suffer from little or no interaction given the sheer number of students. Including active learning strategies in large classes can be daunting; however, starting with smaller activities (see the section on Active Learning Strategies for examples) and/or employing the help of your teaching assistants can help them be more attainable.
- While certain disciplines don’t obviously lend themselves to active learning activities, many examples exist, such as math students working in groups to solve problems (which can incorporate both active and peer learning), or playing math games as an alternative exposure to concepts, or situational learning and data collection in the the sciences.
- Clearly explaining the activity, instructions, and rationale will provide context for hesitant students, as well as highlighting the opportunity for immediate feedback and clarification on topics.
- An active learning environment may seem chaotic, but providing clear instructions to students and keeping to a specific amount of time can help keep things moving and on track.